Mindfulness meditation, a Buddhism-inspired practice in which you focus your mind entirely on the current moment, has been widely embraced for its instrumental benefits — especially in the business world. Companies like Apple, Google and Nike provide meditation rooms that encourage brief sessions during the workday. Chief executives publicly extol its benefits. And no wonder: The practical payoff of mindfulness is backed by dozens of studies linking it to job satisfaction, rational thinking and emotional resilience.
But on the face of it, mindfulness might seem counterproductive in a workplace setting. A central technique of mindfulness meditation, after all, is to accept things as they are. Yet companies want their employees to be motivated. And the very notion of motivation — striving to obtain a more desirable future — implies some degree of discontentment with the present, which seems at odds with a psychological exercise that instills equanimity and a sense of calm.
To test this hunch, we recently conducted five studies, involving hundreds of people, to see whether there was a tension between mindfulness and motivation. As we report in a forthcoming article in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, we found strong evidence that meditation is demotivating.
Some of the participants in our studies were trained in a few of the most common mindfulness meditation techniques. They were instructed by a professional meditation coach to focus on their breathing or mentally scan their bodies for physical sensations, being gently reminded throughout that there was no right or wrong way to do the exercise.
Other participants were led through a different exercise. Some were encouraged to let their thoughts wander; some were instructed to read the news or write about recent activities they had done.
Then we gave everyone a task to do. The tasks were similar to everyday workplace jobs: editing business memos, entering text into a computer and so on. Before embarking on the tasks, the participants were asked about their motivation: How much effort and time would they put into the assignment? Did they feel like doing it?
Among those who had meditated, motivation levels were lower on average. Those people didn’t feel as much like working on the assignments, nor did they want to spend as much time or effort to complete them. Meditation was correlated with reduced thoughts about the future and greater feelings of calm and serenity — states seemingly not conducive to wanting to tackle a work